Friday, June 27, 2014

Realistic Christian Fiction: Is Our PG-rated Fare Enough?

I read an interesting article recently that talked about the sale of Marcher Lord Press, a successful publisher of Christian speculative fiction, to Steve Laube back in January. The publishing house has recently been renamed “Enclave Publishing”, but its purpose remains the same. The author of this article was talking less about the acquisition itself, though, than the non-transfer of MLP’s imprint, Hinterlands. Created in 2012, Hinterlands was also designed to publish Christian spec-fic, but it deviates from MLP (now Enclave) in that its purpose is specifically to publish fiction with more mature (PG-13 or R-rated) content.

My hackles were already raised at that definition, but that’s perhaps unfair. The rest of the article confirmed my uneasy feeling, though. The author was disappointed that Laube chose not to buy Hinterlands along with MLP, and he’s afraid that the decision signals an end to Christian fiction’s tentative first steps into grittier territory. Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t. I really have no idea. I can see where he’s coming from, to some degree, so today I’d like to look at the reasons for more “mature content” in Christian fiction. Next week I’ll lay out some of my concerns with this thinking.


Photo courtesy of khunaspix [backslash]

Photo courtesy of khunaspix/

Much of Christian fiction is, unfortunately, unrealistic and unappealing. Like most people, I’m not impressed by perfect characters, sermons on every other page, and unbelievably squeaky-clean situations. Books that contain those things don’t feel real or compelling, and they tend to brand Christians as overly-na├»ve, with no conception of real-world situations. How can we possibly reach humanity if our stories don’t accurately portray the world humanity inhabits? 

  • Villains: It is generally understood that villains aren’t good people. Or, at least, their moral lines are more blurred than most people’s. Yet many Christian books won’t show their villain doing anything offensive. He’s there to oppose the hero and/or to stand between love interests, but he does it all in a suspiciously clean manner. It’s difficult to believe in the stakes of a story if the villain doesn’t feel scary. To demonstrate your villain’s scariness, you need to demonstrate some aspect of his or her nastiness.
  • Heroes: Another fault in Christian fiction is making our heroes and heroines too perfect. I struggle with this, because I always want my characters to make the right decisions. But humans don’t always choose the right path. Even with Divine Guidance, we still go our own way sometimes, leading to trouble. No hero except Christ is perfect, so we must show their imperfections along with their good traits. Is your hero a sailor? Then he probably swears (I might be pointing a finger at myself right now…) A prizefighter? Then he knows how to hurt someone and may be inclined to do it easily. Was she once a prostitute? Maybe she still is. She understands men and their appetites. Take into account your protagonist’s background and profession when showing their weaknesses. But remember that, even if they have a pretty clean life, they’ll still make mistakes. And mistakes can sometimes be graphic.
  • Setting: Like with your protagonist’s background, your story’s setting will affect the content. If it’s a war story, you must necessarily show violence. Stories about the Old West or police officers would also include violence. Sailing stories may include violence, profanity, and debauchery. One reason for including “mature content” is to establish realism in your setting.

Life is messy. We live in a fallen world where people make mistakes. We speak without thinking; we get ourselves into situations we shouldn’t be in. All of this is true, and it shouldn’t be ignored in our stories. Authors shouldn’t avoid the story of a girl who’s pregnant before she gets married just because it’s uncomfortable. Yes, it’s wrong, but it happens, and there are people out there who need to hear that story. What about the young man who murders someone and is haunted by that for the rest of his life? These things happen in real life, and to ignore them is to lose a large amount of our ability to relate. God works in amazing ways through the stories of broken people; how better to glorify Him than to show Him at work?

Next week I’ll discuss some of the concerns I have with pushing the limits of Christian fiction, but for now, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the industry. Have you found Christian books to be unrealistic because of a lack of graphic, or at least gritty, details? Let me know in the comments!


  1. I agree. We need to know that the villains do some really bad things or the audience won't feel the same sense of urgency the protagonist has to STOP the villain.

    Also I think you're right about heroes being too perfect, especially in Christian fiction. We need good role models, sure, but ones we can relate to. Also, if the character is too perfect, there's no room for showing moral or spiritual growth. It might be good to see a fallible or even an anti-hero every now and then in Christian literature. I'm not saying every protagonist has to be a trashy horrible person, but sometimes the best role models are the ones who work hard every day to overcome their own flaws.

    I don't think a book has to be gritty to be a good and realistic piece of work--there are a lot of different types of books, from romantic comedies to stories about prisoners of war, and both types have different goals. But I don't think we should be afraid of violent and immoral topics as long as they are addressed properly and not glorified.

    Anyways, really good thoughts. Also, you'd be welcome if you'd like to guest post on my writing blog sometime :)

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Laura! I appreciate hearing your thoughts. :)

      Very true on all points. Seeing an anti-hero in Christian fiction would certainly shake things up. And, yes, seeing characters overcome their flaws is a better way, in my opinion, to inspire us to overcome ours, than to show them being perfect in every way. And, I absolutely agree with you about not glorifying those topics but showing them appropriately.

      As for guest posting, I would be honored. Shoot me an email at, and I'd be happy to discuss the possibility with you. :)

  2. I think there's a time for 'innocent' books too, at least for kids and teens. I am NOT saying that everything should be squeaky clean, but I seriously don't need anything graphic. I know bad stuff happen in real life and if the book doesn't glorify them, then maybe. But PLEASE nothing graphic! Something like Nancy Rue's books is good. She addresses it and shows us stuff, but the it's not right in our face all the time. And she does a great job of keeping its clear that God is the answer. So, I DO appreciate flaws in characters and I get the point of the post, I just think the grittiness should have it's boundaries. Clean books are good too (or better, depends on who you ask). Anyway, those are some of my thoughts.

    1. I'm so glad you stopped by, Sofia! I understand where you're coming from, and I share some of your thoughts. And, by the way, I was not advocating a blatant loss of innocence for readers. :) That's what I want to cover next week. :)

  3. I have on occasion felt that Christian fiction isn't exciting or realistic enough. But I have read a few series that were great! One of them, "The Heart of India" series by Linda Chaikin, did a really fantastic job. Being set in India, in the midst of intense Hinduism vs. Christianity, the series didn't shy from showing the fallen nature of humanity. The spiritual darkness and violence of the world was shown clearly- but at the same time, it didn't go into all the gory and horrific detail, for which I was glad. I think that reality should be shown, but not to the point where it becomes too realistic. The Bible says that it is shameful even to mention what the wicked do in secret, so I don't believe we should go into too much detail when it comes to sin and violence.
    Jace, was a very well done character. He was by no means a Christian, and was a man with a troubled and tormented past. He struggled with making the right decisions, while maintaining what he thought was his freedom from the slave-like life of a Christian. But over the course of the series, it showed the gradual softening of his heart, and eventually his redemption.

    1. Hmm, sounds like an interesting series! And you are very right: I've read many Christian books with beautiful, realistically told stories. I'm hoping to mention some of them with my next post.

      That's a good point about not discussing what the wicked do in secret. Too much detail is definitely not a good thing. :) Thanks for commenting, Rayne! I enjoy hearing your thoughts!

  4. Some good points have already been made, especially the line between showing sin, and glorifying sin! I also think that there has to be sin "shown and not told", because this is where the glory of a Gospel meets us!

    It is a tricky business though, you're right. How much is too much? I'm looking forward to your next blog!

    1. You're very right, Liv! I hope my next post meets your expectations! :D


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